For Some Authors, What's Love Got to Do With It?

Afrequent fiction theme is "boy meets girl." But some past and present novelists don't pay a lot of attention to romance in their most famous books.
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Under my previous post, about similarities in literature, commenter "Little Princess" rightly noted that a very frequent fiction theme is "boy meets girl." But some past and present novelists don't pay a lot of attention to romance in their most famous books. Those authors' "love affairs" tend to be with the depiction of adventure or ambition or politics or social injustice or sci-fi scenarios or other things.

Among the many love-isn't-all-they-need writers are Mark Twain, John Steinbeck and Cormac McCarthy. I'll discuss some of their novels and a little about the marriages of the first two, and then ask you to name other authors who don't focus that much on matters of the heart.

Twain's first novel, The Gilded Age, does have a partial romantic element that's mostly the product of co-author Charles Dudley Warner. But that plot thread seems perfunctory amid Twain's satirically hilarious swipes at corruption, the urge for wealth, etc.

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court also has a bit of "boy meets girl," but that's a minor aspect of what's mostly a scathing antiwar novel wrapped in a time-travel story.

Twain's Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc? It's the novelized version of a young woman's real-life martyrdom. The Prince and the Pauper and Pudd'nhead Wilson? Meditations on poverty and wealth through the lens of swapped identities. Little or no romance in those three books.

Then there are Twain's two best-known novels. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer has a touch of "puppy love" between the title character and Becky Thatcher, but it's mostly a story about the rascally Tom. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is primarily about Huck's "coming of age" in a harsh world of racism and other social ills.

Twain and his wife Livy reportedly had a happy marriage (tinged with tragedy because of the deaths of two of their children while both parents were still alive). And the couple's courtship and contrasts (she came from wealth, he from a more modest background) could have inspired some dramatic fictional love stories. But no major novel by the unsentimental Twain uses that fodder in a significant way.

John Steinbeck's first two marriages (to Carol and Gwyn) ultimately didn't work out, while his third (to Elaine) did. But romantic relationships, good or bad, are rarely the focus of his best-known novels.

The closest exception might be East of Eden, which includes the brief marriage of a clueless Adam and the evil Cathy. But the novel is more about the Cain-and-Abel-ish relationships of brothers Charles and Adam, and of Adam's sons Caleb and Aron. (Note all those C and A initials!) There's also the friendship of Adam and housekeeper Lee (whose name doesn't start with C, but he does cook...).

Steinbeck partly dedicated The Grapes of Wrath to his first wife ("To Carol, who willed this book"). But that novel's laser focus is on social injustice, even though some of its memorable characters are married or meet mates or lose mates.

The protagonist is married in The Winter of Our Discontent, but Steinbeck is more concerned in that book with America's moral decline. A bit of love interest in Cannery Row and its Sweet Thursday sequel? Sure, but those episodic novels look at the lives of characters on the margins of society more than focus on romance. And Steinbeck's The Moon Is Down is about the Nazi occupation of a country.

Cormac McCarthy's canon includes occasional relationships (that don't end well) -- as in Suttree, All the Pretty Horses and Cities of the Plain. But his main focus is on the lives of male loners and the violence that's so much a part of America -- with mayhem particularly prominent in Blood Meridian and No Country for Old Men.

In short, some authors devote most of their literary energies to important non-romantic subjects. Heck, there are certainly more than enough great and not-so-great "boy meets girl" novels by other authors to fill any reader's love-in-literature quota. (And a growing number of books offer "boy meets boy" and "girl meets girl" scenarios.)

I'm a big fan of fiction's most romantic works -- whether the romances depicted are happy, sad or illusory. Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre, Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights, Jane Austen's Persuasion, Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, Erich Maria Remarque's Arch of Triumph, Gabriel Garcia Marquez's Love in the Time of Cholera, L.M. Montgomery's The Blue Castle, Colette's Cheri and so many more. But a terrific novel obviously doesn't need love as its main attraction.

Who are your favorite authors, in any genre, who don't emphasize romance in many of their novels? Or, if you'd like, you can name your favorite love stories in literature!


In his often-humorous Comic (and Column) Confessional memoir, Dave Astor recalls 25 years of covering and meeting cartoonists, columnists and others such as Charles Schulz ("Peanuts"), Bill Watterson ("Calvin and Hobbes"), Ann Landers, Hillary Clinton and Coretta Scott King. Contact Dave at to buy a discounted, inscribed copy of the book -- which includes a preface by Heloise and back-cover blurbs by Arianna Huffington and Gary Larson ("The Far Side").

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